February 17, 2018

Our First President Receives the Most Recent Presidential Library

Jimmy Carter has one. So do Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford. Abraham Lincoln’s was completed in 2004. And, starting next month, George Washington, America’s first chief executive, will finally have his own presidential library.

Following a decade of planning, fundraising, and acquisition of materials, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon will open Sept. 27, near the Washington family estate along the Potomac River in Virginia.

The library is owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the nation’s oldest historic preservation organization, which purchased Washington’s home in the mid-19th century and now operates public tours of the house and grounds.

The library is named for Fred W. Smith, chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, who donated $38 million for the library project in 2010. Officials say more than 7,000 contributions were made to a capital campaign that raised more than $106 million, exceeding its $100 million target.

The concept of a Washington presidential library at Mount Vernon began more than a decade ago, Melissa Wood, director of media relations, told LJ in a recent interview. James Rees, former president of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, was instrumental in making the project a reality, she added, but Rees was forced to retire last year due to illness.

The Washington library is not affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration, which helps fund and operate libraries for 13 presidents, from Hoover to George W. Bush, spread through 11 states. Other former chief executives have museums and archives funded by individual states or private money. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, for example, is operated by a private not-for-profit foundation.

The entrance to the Fred W. Smith National Library

The 45,000-square-foot library will house a full-time staff of 30, including curators, education staff, academic fellows, and a library director. The two-story stone and glass structure features a gleaming reception hall, reading rooms where visiting fellows and other researchers will work and a conference room.

“It’s going to be an absolutely beautiful facility,” said Dr. James K. Martin, a University of Houston faculty member who received a fellowship to study at the Washington library. Martin will begin work shortly after the grand opening. “It will help us try to understand this man Washington, who was very attracted to power, but could control himself around power.”

What’s Inside

Inside a rare book suite, a vault houses many of the presidential library’s most prized acquisitions: 54 volumes owned by Washington and once kept in his personal library. Washington’s personal library numbered some 1,200 titles, Wood noted. Most of the remaining volumes reside in Boston. There are also some 450 letters and manuscripts written in the first president’s own hand at the new facility.

The Washington library’s collection is already quite sizable. It includes:

  • 18,000 books, serials and multimedia publications on Washington and his contemporaries.
  • A digital library of more than 250,000 books and other publications.
  • 2,500 rare books
  • 7,500 early records of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

“Washington was a really big letter writer,” Wood said. “He’d be the guy today who had two BlackBerrys.”

As the Mount Vernon presidential library continues to locate and purchase items from Washington’s personal collection, officials point to one volume with particular pride: a leather-bound copy of Acts of the First Congress, which the first president received in 1789 shortly after taking office. It was obtained at auction in June of 2012.

Few such volumes were ever distributed, and Washington’s copy features the words “President of the United States” embossed in gold on the cover. What makes this item truly spectacular for scholars, library officials agree, is the hand-written notes by Washington sprinkled throughout the tome. As Brunsman said, these notations show our first president almost learning on the job, noting what powers and responsibilities the new Constitution did and did not bestow upon the chief executive.

“We believe our collection merits us to be on par with the major research libraries,” said Mark Santangelo, chief librarian and archivist for the Washington library.

Open to Scholars

None of Washington’s personal artifacts will be on display at the presidential library, and there will be no public foot traffic inside the building, as there are at the separate George Washington museum at Mount Vernon.

But doesn’t mean researchers must be affiliated with an academic institution to see the collection. “We are open, by appointment only, for anyone with a bona fide research question. It’s not like you have to be a Ph.D. to walk in the door,” said Santangelo.

“It’s completely devoted to scholarship,” said Denver Brunsman, an associate professor of history at George Washington University, who will bring a class of students to the library each week as part of his course, “George Washington and His World.” The first of these class sessions will be held on Sept. 30, the Monday after the grand opening, and taped for a later broadcast on C-Span.

“A collection of books alone does not make a library,” Santangelo said, noting that guest lectures, historical symposiums, and other programs will be sprinkled throughout the calendar. “We are making good partnerships with the colleges and universities in our area. I think our mission is evolving and changing.


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